As the shadow of COVID lifts, let’s hope the thriving business of literary pilgrimages will regain its buoyancy and help us connect the stories that motivate and inspire us with the reality of today’s world.
I attended the same high school in Pennsylvania as John Updike. His father bought his pants from my Dad’s clothing store and used to work as a substitute math teacher at our school. Once, when I was in ninth grade, Mr. Updike taught our class. Tall and gangly with a bulbous nose and a wry wit, he goofed off and didn’t do much teaching, but he said, “Maybe some of you kids have heard of my son. He lives in New England and writes dirty books.”
Later on, my family moved to a new home which was down the road from the farm where the now widowed Mrs. Updike lived. Driving by one day with a visiting college friend, we spotted Mrs. Updike out on her riding mower. “Let’s stop!” said my friend. So we dropped in and she gave us a warm welcome and told us stories about young John.
Updike’s early stories are rooted in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania (immortalized as “Olinger” in the Rabbit Run trilogy) and once, when I was in a seventh-grade study hall, I had the remarkable experience of reading one of his stories which was set not only in the town where I lived, but in the very room in the same building in which I was reading the story.
Ever since I have been an enthusiast for the personal literary pilgrimage. In college a fellow Anglophile gave me a picture book edited by Clyde Kilby called C.S. Lewis: Images of His World. It was full of pictures of the golden-green English countryside, mellow Oxford quads and common rooms warmed by a roaring fire and conversation with pipe puffing dons. After college, when my own path led to Oxford, of course the Eagle and Child would become my pub of choice. How can one resist swilling a pint in the same nook and cranny where the Inklings imbibed?
Living in England enabled jaunts to other literary haunts: More than once I stopped to visit George Herbert’s tiny church at Bemerton in Wiltshire, Newman’s rooms at Littlemore, and Lewis’ house, The Kilns. When I was at Cambridge, I made a pilgrimage to Little Gidding and, when touring the West Country, made a point of going to East Coker. Years later my love of Eliot and his work prompted a visit to his boyhood home in St. Louis and a look over the Mississippi—the “strong brown god” of Dry Salvages.
In the same spirit, a few weeks ago my brother and I travelled from my home in Greenville to visit Andalusia—the farmhouse home of Flannery O’Connor in North Georgia.
Each one of these literary pilgrimages helps to ground the work of literature in the writer’s world. At Andalusia you can not only visit Flannery’s room and the front porch and see some peacocks, but you can also peek into the milk cooling shed where Asbury (from “The Enduring Chill”) smoked with the help and drank the tainted milk that made him sick. Next door is the barn and hayloft where Hulga from “Good Country People” lost her leg (and her virtue) to the Bible salesman.
The best fiction is as concrete and clear as the real world, and the best writers use their experience and the real world to mine for the raw materials of their fictional realities. Even the masters of fantasy fabricate their alternative worlds on the here and now. This was hammered home to me when I took a long hike across the hills in the Welsh borders. Tolkien and Lewis used to go “rambling” across these hills, and to hike them even today is to glimpse the wooded valleys and stark mountains of Middle Earth—and not just Middle Earth but Narnia too, for there alongside the footpath above the village of Bredwardine in Herefordshire you will find “Arthur’s Stone,” a neolithic burial chamber that must be the inspiration for the stone table at Aslan’s How in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
A similar grounding in geographical reality is part of any religious pilgrimage. To visit Rome or Jerusalem is to make a concrete connection with the reality of the Gospels and the apostolic age.
In our superficial world where we spend a frightening amount of time in the artificial cosmos of the internet and in which we dwell increasingly within the confines of a screen, getting up and participating in reality is like a breath of fresh air on a mountaintop in spring. As the shadow of COVID lifts, let’s hope the thriving business of holy pilgrimages will regain its buoyancy and help us connect the stories that motivate and inspire us with the reality of today’s world.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.